It’s that time again. Here is Version 5 of our Ramadan strategy: how to NAIL Ramadan, maintain your gains with minimum intrusion to the spiritual aspects. Including your full workout routine during ramadan:
A period for mental resolve and spiritual benefit.
Video version of this post:
A couple of years ago I would have read the words:
A period for catabolism and sickening amounts of cottage cheese.
If you’re in the same situation and faced with the question of how to train in Ramadan, this article is definitely for you. If not, you can still learn from it by taking the principles of adapting your diet and training to a nocturnal schedule.
The physical requirements of Ramadan are simply no food or water during daylight hours.
Fasting in Ramadan can also have several benefits:
– Improved mental discipline.
– A chance to rekindle your spiritual connection, shut away the distractions and dive inwardly.
– A chance to allow training/diet to run in the background and to focus on higher priorities.
– The potential for restored insulin sensitivity and nutrient partitioning.
– Higher growth hormone output during the fasts.
Now just to put myself in the dingus-seat for a moment: Over the last 5 years I have tried several reckless strategies to train during Ramadan, and have finally arrived at an optimal solution for any buff Muslims. I’d like to save you the headache off the bat.
Ramadan during the past 3 years has fallen mostly during summer in the UK, meaning much longer fasts:
Failed Strategy #1: The ‘Half-assing it’
Training: Stop training with weights altogether and attempt a bodyweight circuit once per week after your evening meal.
Diet: Eating according to appetite. (Reduced during Ramadan: remember, your stomach capacity reduces).
Major strength loss and regression (20kg loss on all lifts). The fasts were tough. Set me back a couple of months of training time.
Mistake: Calories were obviously far too low with a restricted eating window. Combine with stark reduction in training stimulus? Great recipe for strength regression.
Failed Strategy #2: The ‘Bro’
Training: Train fasted at the gym in the evening before it closes – high volume and high intensity. Wait an hour until you can eat.
Diet: Attempt to eat ‘clean’ – choking down masses of cottage cheese, avoiding late-night carbs (casein brah, don’t want to go catabolic during the fast!).
Dehydrated and felt horrendous while training – gave myself a nasty deadlift injury too.. duh. 8kg weight loss and some strength losses. Food stops being enjoyable.
Mistake: Total volume of food went up, but silly additional constraints meant a reduction in calories and therefore excess weight loss and a miserable time.
Failed Strategy #3: The ‘Stomach-Buster’
Training: Go mental in the opposite direction and do a 5-day-a-week shoulder specialisation program, training at 2am at a 24-hour gym.
Diet: Masses of calories, meticulously tracked. Lots of junk food, cheesecake in a blender. Rice and Meat Curry, 1kg of chips and a whole chicken every night. Fit taraweeh somewhere in between it all.
Gain 10kg on your overhead press, some size in your delts, and completely miss the point of Ramadan. Feel so bloated you have to lie down at night, and feel sick and thirsty during the day from all the sodium – genuinely dreading the prospect of eating that evening. Overly food-focused and total loss of focus on Ramadan itself, including a reversed sleeping pattern. Fail.
Years 4.5 and 6: Finally getting the hang of this business
Brought training volume down to a sensible level, ate at maintenance with appropriate calorie density food-choices and continued to progress while minimally impacting on time, headspace and spiritual commitments.
Ramadan is a time for internal focus. You should not be training 5-7x per week, stuffing yourself at night to keep the catabolism monster away, mentally occupied with fear of losing your gains. Equally, letting your hard-earned physique go entirely to pot is unnecessary and will cost you the subsequent few months of damage control well after Ramadan is over.
What we want is an approach that allows training to take back seat, doing the bare minimum to maintain your strength, limiting your risk of injury, while letting you get the most out of Ramadan.
Here’s how to do it right:
The Optimal Ramadan Strategy:
1 – Forget clean eating. eat for two purposes:
There are two types of people in this world:
– Those who gain weight during Ramadan,
– and those who lose weight.
You need to select your food choices based on your appetite. The more common outcome of a short eating window and stomach-shrinking is that people tend to undereat and get run-down as a result.
Some people can, however, beat the odds and manage to inadvertently gain weight during the month – usually a combination of too much ghee and putting training on hold.
The answer: aim for more calorie-dense foods and avoid foods that might normally bloat you up, e.g. overdoing the oats or dairy.
Rice, whey, chicken, fatty cuts of meat, pastries, sweets, fruit, ice-cream, whatever you need.
If you’re of the opposite disposition: begin iftar and suhoor with some lean protein and fibrous veggies to curb your appetite, before moving on to the naughty stuff.
b) Getting sufficient protein: Prioritise protein, aiming for 1.5-2g/kg bodyweight daily, followed by carbs + fat, to satiety. So if you’re an 80kg man, that’s 120-160g protein.
c) Protein goal, calorie goal: Don’t aim for specific macros during the month – hit a protein range (1.5-2g/kg) and calorie goal (maintenance) made up from any combination of carbs and fats.
2 – Preparation
Prepare your nutritional bases and a multivitamin during the day, with a ready made protein shake. Don’t be afraid to rely heavily on whey during the night to hit your protein targets. We want to eliminate friction, and minimise the number of diet-decisions you need to make once sunset hits.
3- Don’t deliberately aim for a calorie deficit.
If calories are too low, you’ll be worn down and under-recovered from the training program below. The only fitness goal you should realistically aim to pursue is maintenance during this month. You may find that you naturally eat a deficit from the restricted eating window, but this is not the time to try to force it. Remember, portions can be misleading when eating a day’s worth of food over a short period.
4 – Stay hydrated at night. Aim for at least 2.5 litres.
– Try to spread this out throughout the evening, so you don’t flush it all and end up thirsty the next day.
If you’ve been reading this website for a while, you’ll know by now that carbohydrates at night is potentially more muscle-sparing and fat burning than having a larger breakfast. ‘No carbs at night’ has been a crippling myth for years.
6 – You won’t ‘go catabolic’ during the fast.
The potentially catabolic part is too large of a WEEKLY CALORIE DEFICIT and INSUFFICIENT PROTEIN. This won’t be a problem if you follow the above guidelines. While fasting is technically a catabolic process, you’ll offset any muscle loss by eating sufficient calories and signalling your body to retain muscle with the training program.
7: Train at night, 2-3x/week with the low volume strategy given below.
- Find a 24 hour gym nearby. They are surprisingly busy 11pm-2am in Ramadan – they must have all read this article!
- Avoid training fasted: the dehydration increases risk of injury and will inhibit performance + recovery.
More isn’t always better. The gains from your training volume are commensurate with your ability to recover from it. The data shows that reducing volume during ramadan produced better muscle gains in this study.
Even if you train after iftar, don’t push the intensity. It takes time to hydrate, and training to failure where your technique is compromised is just putting you at risk. Stay away from failure: leave a couple of reps in the tank.
Avoid deadlifts during the month, as it is the movement that carries the highest risk when dehydrated. I’m speaking from experience unfortunately.
7am: Awake – fasting until 10pm
6pm: Depending on your working hours, 6pm-8pm might be a good time to catch some sleep.
Serving of rice & chicken, and dessert. 1 litre water
Midnight: Begin training, sip intraworkout drink (See below)
1am: Suhoor (pre-fast meal). Should be similar to your iftar, but with more fibre and fat. This will slow digestion and help to maintain satiety during the fast.
Dehydration is catabolic and increases your risk of injury, so be sure to stay hydrated during your workouts. I use 1 scoop of whey or MP The Pump (BCAAs and electrolyte blend) in 2 litres of water and (optionally) up to 50g maltodextrin or haribo. Adequate fluids, electrolytes, blood glucose and aminos, will improve cellular hydration and performance.
The goal of training during Ramadan is strength maintenance/gain,. We advise a low to moderate volume split that can be done 2x/week, using straight sets.
By treating Ramadan as an extended deload, you can increase your training volume and intensity in the weeks leading up to the month, using this time to recover and restore anabolic signalling.
A) Seated press: 5×3 @80% 1RM
B) Bench: 5×3 @80% 1RM
C) Weighted chin ups: 4×6
D) Hanging leg raises: 2×12
A) Squat: 5×3 @80%
B) Close grip bench: 5×5
C) Seated V-bar row: 3 x 10
D) Rope face pulls: 3×12
E) Calves/Abs 3×12
Make sure to spend slightly longer warming up hips and lower back before squats. Kelly Starrett’s hip opener is a personal favourite:
- Daytime: Fast
- Sundown (Either after Maghrib or Isha): Begin training while sipping your intraworkout drink. Do not train dehydrated.
- Iftar: Serving of protein, followed by carbohydrates, then fat. 1 litre water.
- Suhoor: Higher fat + fibre meal with 60-100g protein
Q – Should I do cardio?
A – Don’t be ridiculous. Unless you’re training for endurance, the only use for cardio here would be to offset a calorie surplus eaten during the night, in which case use this as an opportunity for self control. Remember the Hadith ““Enough for a human being to have luqaymat (a few mouthfuls) that prop up his spine and, if he must have more in his stomach, then one third of food, one third of water, and one third of air.”
Cardio to deliberately create a calorie deficit is a recipe for fatigue. The only training goal during this period is the minimum stimulus to maintain muscle mass. The training approach above will ensure that. See this paper if you’re interested in how ramadan affects sports performance.
Q – Will BCAAs break my fast?
A – Yes, they will. No food or water must pass the lips during the fast.
Q – My gym shuts before maghrib (sundown), so I can’t have whey/BCAA and then train. I don’t have access to a 24 hour gym. What can I do?
The three options:
- Train at home: We have a home-workout trick up our sleeve for this one in our VIP client group.
I would not advise the other two options:
- Train in the evening before gym closes: If you must do this, keep the rest periods LONG to reduce sweating and dehydration. Remember the goal of the training is strength maintenance, not to run yourself into the ground.
- Train early morning when the gym opens
Q – How should I train after Ramadan ends?
A – Because of the probable calorie restriction you have undergone during Ramadan, there’s a fantastic opportunity to rebound and gain some good size and strength in the few weeks following Eid.
Gradually increase calories and volume to a higher level to take full advantage using this template. You will experience decent muscle and strength gains and potentially loss of bodyfat at the same time if you time this correctly.
Gradually increasing calories and training volume after a deload period creates a favourable metabolic and hormonal environment for muscle gain. Bodybuilders take advantage of this brief rebound after competitions to make their best gains of the year.
Doing this while staying lean requires guidance and individualisation based on your training experience.
So, enjoy Ramadan this year, maximise your spiritual benefit, and use these guidelines to take a load off your mind when it comes to training and diet. Don’t fall into the same traps that I did, and you too can become Muslim-spiderman:
Want more on Ramadan? Remember Ben Tormey? Check his guide here, having worked with hundreds of PT clients in Dubai, he’s observed the challenges clients face in Ramdan, including the paradoxical weight gain and schedule disruption. Includes training and meal planning guides here.